Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on March 1, 2018.

Taking Up

A former fire chief bids NFPA adieu, and issues a call for vigilance on the problems of firefighter cancer and behavioral health

Firefighters use the term “taking up” to describe the process they follow when a fire is over, when it’s time to repack the hose, return the equipment to its proper place, and get the company back in service for the next call. After serving 35 years in the fire service and eight more at NFPA, it’s now my time to take up into retirement. This is my last column for NFPA Journal, and I want to close with a look at what I consider to be the most important issues facing firefighters today: cancer and behavioral health.

I’ll never forget the day about 20 years ago when one of my closest shift mates told me he had cancer. Guido had just returned to the firehouse after recuperating for several weeks following an off-duty accident, and as he walked across the apparatus floor I could see that he was troubled. When I asked him what was up, Guido said three words I’ll never forget: “Kenny, I’m dying.” Guido gave it his all and fought as hard and for as long as he possibly could. Less than two years later, though, we hoisted him on top of Engine 1 and carried him to his final resting place.

Here’s another moment I’ll never forget. About five years into my career, I disobeyed an order by refusing an assignment as the jump seat rider in the engine I was assigned to, because the driver reported for duty under the influence of alcohol. This firefighter was the best driver/operator on our crew, but the job had taken a psychological toll. Fifteen years before, he’d responded to a fire where three young children were trapped and could not be rescued, and the event had left a lasting mark on him. His struggle with alcohol was known in the department, but no one had refused to ride with him until that night. Within 20 minutes, he was sent home and directed to meet with the chief the next morning. What followed was a concerted effort by the department and others to help him remain sober until his retirement several years later.

I share these stories because, after my 43-year journey, I’ve learned that the success of the fire service is about the firefighters themselves—we are only as successful as the abilities of the individual members of our small units and company operations. If we do not manage post-traumatic stress and limit occupational exposure to carcinogens to keep our people safe and healthy, we risk losing our most critical assets. Organizations like NFPA, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and fire service leaders have a responsibility to take action to protect our firefighters, but we also need firefighters to be willing to accept responsibility for their behavior by maintaining proficiency in their craft and adherence to best practices.

We all have a responsibility to speak up and help if we see a comrade suffering from drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other behavioral health issues. Every firefighter has a personal responsibility to themselves, their families, and their departments to limit their exposure to the toxic substances swirling in the environment during and after a fire.

When I was elected president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, I thought it was the capstone event of my career—the position offered me a chance to advocate for public safety funding and issues before the governor and leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives. But joining NFPA and becoming involved in these important national and global fire service discussions has eclipsed it. It has been a privilege and an honor to have met thousands of responders, hear their stories, and work to have their voices heard.

I hope your fire service journey is as blessed as mine has been. Safe travels!

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.